First Baptist Church of Petersburg, originally known as the First African Baptist Church, is the oldest continuously operating black church in Virginia. The evangelical anti-slavery message of the equality of all men who were made in God’s image preached by Baptist missionaries after the Great Awakening in the 1730s and 1740s led to the conversion of large numbers of African slaves and free persons who then began worshipping together in the Baptist tradition in Prince George County by 1756. Free members of the congregation later moved to Petersburg and changed the name to the First Baptist Church when the Byrd plantation meetinghouse succumbed to flames.
In Petersburg, they joined a growing community of free persons of color, which became the largest free black population in the South by 1860. The First Baptist congregation valued education highly and soon created a school shortly after the church’s founding. That school (Peabody High School) is considered the oldest educational institution specifically created for blacks in the United States. Traditionally shepherded by a black pastor, the church was forced to accept the imposition of a white pastor by the slaveholding community which feared slave insurrections especially after the Nat Turner Revolt in 1831. After the Civil War the black congregation regained control of the pulpit and by the 1870s was one of the largest black churches in the nation.
In the twentieth century Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 1960s, First Baptist became the center of community organization. It was the site of mass protest meetings, the origination point for civil rights marches, and the center for voter registration activities.
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